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Not Supported By Scrutiny
on August 12, 2010
Davidson and Goldberg state that changes in communications technology in recent decades demand concommitant changes in how schools, especially colleges and universities, educate our young. I agree. But our authors take that premise and run with it in some directions which I don't believe are supported by the evidence.
Our authors insist that conventional education, with its hierarchical social groupings and insistence on individual work, will prove completely unsustainable in coming years. I wonder if they have read their history seriously enough. Their warnings repeat, nearly verbatim, statements made when moveable type, film, and television challenged former paradigms of learning. A time traveler from 1975 might be astounded to see that videotape hasn't rendered teachers obsolete.
They go on to extol "virtual" educational models which take place without "the contiguity of time and place." Which sounds good, but my own experiments with structural flexibility teach me that, if I don't require my students to be in a room at a certain time, more than half of them will never do the reading or write their assignments more than a day in advance. I doubt even Goldberg and Davidson believe that classes without classrooms will ever be more than icing on the cake for advanced students. They concede early on that "most virtual institutions are, in fact, supported by a host of real institutions and real individuals."
Though some students love learning enough to be self-motivated, they are not the majority. Many, if not most, regard classes, even within their majors, as a nuisance. I would love it if my students had enough ambition to undertake the kind of team tasks Davidson and Goldberg describe, but anybody who has taught more than one or two semesters knows that if you get three students per class who don't need to be prodded, you are one lucky cuss.
I found one comment our authors quoted to be all too telling. A respondent to an early draft of this paper insisted that "open-ended assignments provide the opportunity for creative, research-based learning." This is true, for those willing to embrace such opportunity. But this respondent sought out and answered back to a scholarly paper; I might get two students per semester with that level of ambition.
I would absolutely love to assign more open-ended research projects. I would love to let my students take ownership of the learning process. But I have learned the hard way that they usually will not. I had two students drop my class this past semester because, even with five days' warning, they considered a ten-question reading quiz on a twenty-page chapter too onerous.
Likewise, these authors repeat the claim, which I keep seeing lately, that Pokemon teaches youth important matematical and reasoning skills. I don't doubt this. But my colleagues in the Math Department tell me that only a handful make the leap that allows them to apply Pokemon-based math skills to diverse real world applications. Most still rely on the institutional classroom to make that connection for them. Regular students still need the skills and structure only a conventional four-wall classroom can provide.
Consider Wikipedia, which the authors extol, claiming that professors disparage the site without merit. Yes, its many user/editors keep it up-to-date and Open-Source. Yes, the collaborative model ferrets out innacuracies. But even laying aside the limits of a tertiary source, its programming model leaves it vulnerable to pranks and hacks by idiots. Even that wouldn't be so bad if students utilized their discretion to screen out obvious bunk, but they don't. Too many students receive content uncritically, and I get papers riddled with inaccuracies.
Institutional schooling has survived past changes in the media and cultural landscape because it works. Sure, it will have to adapt to the influence of the new technology, just as it has before. But as long as most youth need mature guidance to take on the skills and responsibilities of adulthood, there will be a place for a classroom with a clear leader judging progress. Davidson and Goldberg claim the old models have become obsolete, but that just doesn't bear up to scrutiny.